Desiring African Literature

We just completed reading Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sandchild, an amazing work that I have yet to process in any definitive way. As a post-realist text, it does a great job of undoing many assumptions in the class. I have taught it once in a queer class and this is the second time I am teaching it in an African fiction class. I will need to teach it at least once more in a queer class before I can make any definite pronouncement on how the setting of the class influences reception. I will note, in passing, that I am a very different creature in both classes, even though they are back-to-back, and the switch from African to Queer is quite fascinating to watch, at least I think so.

Because I teach in North America, I must have the speech about what it means to study African literature here. Usually, the speech takes the boring, necessary form of claiming that Africa is neither the Lion King nor a country—those who teach African anything will realize the absurdity and necessity of such framings.

But doing this is not enough. And I grow tired of a thesis as banal as: Africa is more complex than that. In truth, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not. Zohreh Sullivan remarks, somewhere, about the flatness of African novels, and I am in love with this description, though I have nothing smart to say about it now.

Rather than framing my class as a necessary corrective, I have been trying to frame it in terms of students’ desire. Some get it. Many don’t.

The question: what do you want from an African text?

How does it, might it, situate you in the world? How does your own worlding depend on a particular relationship to this text, to the sedimented artifact you take from this class?

The answers are varied, of course. From “I want Africa to be the place of safaris” to “I want Africa to be about strong black women” to “I want Africa to be a country” to “I want Africa to be the past” to “I want Africa to be conflict” to “I want Africa to be resolution” to “I want Africa to be poor” to “I want Africa to be oppressive” to “I want Africa to be freedom.”

Respondents range from African immigrants to Caribbean-born students to majors in Anthropology and Government to those looking for an easy grade to, to my great surprise, those who want to take more than one class from me.

And I find myself shaping my pedagogy around these desires, tracing their contours, working for and against them, trying to create competing objects of desire. Here, my obsessive focus on character as opposed to history. My attention, this semester, to the kinds of class and gender and race mobilities that colonialism promises (and delivers) to a range of people has been one strategy to manage the narrative of oppression and resistance.

Here, too, my insistence that we must think about the African-ness of whiteness, of Indian-ness, of blackness, or Arab-ness, that these are not simply givens.

Here, also, my insistence on readings “objects” rather than symbols. We spent a lot of time talking about the “objects” in Graceland. We listened to its soundtrack, discussed its books, thought about its movies, tried to understand its relationship to desire, tried to figure out Elvis’s “cosmopolitanism.”

All of this as ways to think about my students’ desires, and my own.

Some are disappointed that we are not reading Things Fall Apart. I cannot stand the novel and do not have the energy to return to it. This is not a statement about Achebe, whose other work I like, but a statement about a novel that represents so much it cannot be seen. I prefer to teach other novels of that form, so that their fabrications can become apparent.

Yet, the task of soliciting, eliciting, and managing desire never quite works and works all too well. Desires are promiscuous things and in making Africa less strange, I might have made it all-too-familiar.

Many of my women students love Muthoni Garland’s Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori, in part because they identify with the global complications of being a woman. Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “Jambula Tree” similarly elicits a “shock of recognition” through a nascent feminism (nascent in my students) that worries about something they might call patriarchy one day and, for now, call women’s limited freedoms (this is, of course, one desire the class creates: that U.S. women’s freedom is predicated on other women’s un-freedom).

The desire to have Africa be “just like” the U.S. is met by an equally strong desire to have it be “completely unlike” the U.S.

There is a certain banality to this observation, something to do with how reading practices, today, are structured around what my best friend calls “truthism,” not realism. We are invested in having texts (to be fair, we were chatting about tv, not books, when we discussed “truthism”) speak about our “truths,” structure and confirm our confessions, justify and privilege our normativities.

And this desire is “managed,” unfortunately, through a banalization of aesthetic practices, though I am not quite sure whether mainstream entertainment still merits the term “aesthetics.”

There is a risk, then, in trying to manage students’ desires for Africa by making it banal, rather than extraordinary.

We end the semester on Leila Aboulela’s amazing The Translator, a book about mourning and loving, a book that is, in many ways, about a rather boring character, Sammar. I have told my students she is boring because I want them to contemplate the idea of a boring African character. What might that mean?

Of course, the spectacles broadcast in the U.S. of Africa are always about boring characters—the child too bored to bother chasing flies off his nose. These are people we can feel for, albeit in banal, predictable ways, and not necessarily people we want to engage, people whose interior lives we deem interesting. (Huge generalizations, yes? Is this not the substance of pedagogy?)

Much of this, of course, cannot be written about in the kinds of tools we have to assess pedagogy. Nothing on official forms will ask about how we manage students’ desires, how we make those desires visible, how we negotiate them, play with them, undo them, try to reshape them; how they escape our efforts, create alternative learning trajectories, unique and idiosyncratic metacritical frames; how they resist leaving the banal and also resist leaving the spectacular. All of this is part of teaching.

My simple claim is that it becomes exacerbated when one is teaching African literature.

There are certain ways I desire African literature.

I am interested in how it thinks about diaspora, how it thinks about desire, how it structures itself around pan-formations (pan-African-ness, pan-colonialism, pan-independence, pan-feminism, pan-blackness, etc.), how it fabricates connections across space, especially within the continent. To return to a text I don’t like: how is Things Fall Apart read in Kenya or Botswana or Mali or Mozambique? How might intra-continental reading practices tell us something interesting about Africa’s image of itself?

I am fascinated by the architectures of African literature—the houses, the gardens, the plantations, the huts, the homes, the mansions, the caves, the forests, the kinds of interior and exterior spaces that are as much part of the action as they are its setting. I am intrigued by its soundtracks, this I get from Abani though Soyinka, as always, was there before.

These desires shape a kind of roving pedagogy, where, at times, I play tour guide, not to point out the “significant” parts of texts, but to pause and linger over unusual formations, small curiosities, objects in cupboards. Small, unexpected ruptures—the first time “canned tomatoes” appear in Graceland, for instance. Or the first appearance of “maggi cubes.”

At times, my desires extend how students are able to see texts. At other times, my students’ desires extend my own readings of texts. Often, our desires collide. All of this is productive.

What does it mean to desire Africa? How is it to be desired? How are those desires shaped by and around literature? I end the semester on this note.